Carol Major is a Katoomba writer whose novel The Asparagus Wars was shortlisted for the International Beverly Prize. Words are in her blood: her sister Alice Major is a major poet in Canada, while her late daughter was also a writer. Carol spoke with Michael Duffy about writing and the Blue Mountains. Photo credit: Ona Janzen
Michael: Was The Asparagus Wars your first book?
Carol: Not at all but it’s the first I really tried to get out to a wider audience. The story spans three continents. At its heart is the right to mother my three children: a son taken at birth because I wasn’t married and another son and a daughter following an international custody dispute. It is written as a series of letters to my daughter who had a serious medical condition inherited from me. She went on to develop cancer. Some believed this could be cured with special diets and natural therapies, hence the title The Asparagus Wars. I wanted to take my daughter to Paris instead, the city that had inspired her writing and art. I began writing the story in the battlefields of France after her death, because battle defined my own journey. I felt if I didn’t pay witness to this experience, and share it, I would take profound insights silently to the grave.
Michael: Your prose is quite lyrical.
Carol: I also write poetry. Sometimes I think of this book as a poem or a painting, as it uses images and metaphor to show what can’t be described in direct prose alone. My aim is to take the reader into experiences that - ironically - can’t be described in words.
Michael: How long have you lived in the Mountains?
Carol: About 14 years. I first came to Katoomba as part of the residential program at Varuna, Australia’s National Writers House. I fell in love with the landscape and climate. It reminded me of Scotland, where I was born, and of Canada, where my family immigrated later. The dramatic sky resembles Scotland’s west coast, the way light moves through mist and cloud. The maple trees mirror Canada’s autumn, and of course I have come to love the sage green of the Australian bush. Here I have all three landscapes in one.
Michael: Does living here affect your writing?
Carol: Yes. When I used to travel from Sydney to Katoomba, the first thing I’d notice when I arrived at the station was how I could hear my feet striking the sidewalk, perhaps a bird call, or someone helloing from across the road. In the city I couldn’t hear the clarity in each of these sounds. But here, each one is so particular. I also feel as if time has slowed down. This gives me the space to observe in a different way.
Michael: What do you like about living here more generally?
Carol: The villages. I couldn’t live totally in the bush. Here I’m in a landscape, but I’m never too far from civilisation. That reminds me of Scotland too, how you can walk easily from the wilds into a village.
Michael: Where do you like to go when you walk?
Carol: One place is the Gully. The spot is in south-west Katoomba, where Aboriginal inhabitants were displaced in 1957 to build an unsuccessful car racing track. The land has now been returned to their care. I love the way the bush is slowly encroaching, the bitumen breaking down, a reminder of the folly of those not in tune with nature.
Michael: Do the villages have different characters?
Carol: Definitely! Leura is a fairytale village, a storybook feel to the main street. But I love Katoomba, because it’s feral, it’s got so much happening. There are the same seasoned buskers as when I first arrived. We nod, smile, say hi. Katoomba is filled with writers, artists, dancers, and musicians who survive through a mixture of their art and whatever else they can pick up to make ends meet. We’re not flash people in Katoomba - it’s okay to be poor. Then there’s the Winter Carnival, the witches, the save-the-koalas crowd, the belly-dancing troupes. It’s a wonderful, colourful mess of different people.Michael: People reading this might want to move to Katoomba. Any advice?
Carol: The cold. I love it, but not everyone’s born in Scotland!